In the year 2015 most of us live in a world of needs met. With roofs over our heads, and food in our pantry our attention turns beyond the necessities, often to the arts. Comic books characters, musicians, fantasy novels, and television shows have conquered pop culture. We occupy our attention by consuming beauty, and we are identified by what we consume. Appreciation of art is a huge part of our lives, but how many movies deal primarily with our loving consumption of art?
The nostalgic fanboy Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is obsessed with Paris in the twenties. A time when artists such as Fitzgerald, Cole Porter and Dali constantly bumped into each other hopping from bar to bar. Gils soon to be wife, Inez (Rachel McAdams) doesn’t see the gleam of Paris; she’s pushing for a place in Malibu. One night Gil goes for a walk to soak in the Parisian lights, he is mysteriously pickup by an old Peugeot and taken back in time to his golden age. He begins rubbing shoulders with his idols. He discusses life and love with his favorite writers and after building up confidence, even asks their opinions of his novel in progress. During the day Gil follows his finance on her perpetual shopping spree, at night he slips away to mingle with the greats. Gil soon meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard) a inamorata of Picasso, Hemingway, and Matisse. Adriana doesn’t get Gils love of Paris in the 1920s, she believes the golden age of Paris was the 1890s; Paris’s Bell Epoque. Constantly jumping between his finance and Adriana, Gil began to question whether his life would be greater if he lived in the 20s.
With 16 Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Woody Allen holds the record. When Midnight in Paris won him his third Oscar for screenwriting, he took the lead for most wins. He deserves it. Allen must have enjoyed writing lines for his literary idols. He has Hemingway rambling on about boxing and pride and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald arguing over which party to attend. Every line is full of references to artists of the time and of their work.
The actors pull their characters from the dialogue, and they all do it well. Allen draws star power. Tom Hiddleston plays Scott Fitzgerald, Adrian Brody plays a loopy Salvador Dali and Kathy Bates kills it as the motherly Gertrude Stein. Allen references these characters in many of his films, I’m sure he is very familiar with their works and personalities, and I’m sure he was behind the camera giving the actors pointers on how to portray his idols. I doubt the performances are to be literal as much as they are fun characterizations, the way a nostalgic fanboy may see them. When reading Hemingway I will forever find myself impersonating Corey Stoll’s Hemingway, who speaks the way the author wrote, brief, direct, unbroken.
Owen Wilson plays the Woody Allen character. Like many of Woody Allen’s former roles Gil is observant, often cynical, and always sharp. But Wilson’s character is a much more passive form of the classic Woody Allen. Gil rarely affects the world around him, he takes it in with wide eyes. As he makes his way through the 20s nightlife the camera often focuses on the people around Gil, giving them sorta monologues, while Gil sits back in conversation. At times the film feels like a collection of miniature portraits tied together by Gil’s wandering of the streets.
On the surface Midnight in Paris is calling out, nostalgia as a fallacy. The pedantic character Paul (Michael Sheen) claims, “Nostalgia is denial… It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” It takes Gil nearly the entire movie to realize this. During an insight Gil proclaims, “That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying, because life’s a little unsatisfying.” But the beauty of the film doesn’t come from this realization, it comes from the fact that we can always find beauty and inspiration in art. After reading Gil’s novel in progress, about a man who works in an antique store, Gertrude Stein offers some criticism, “The artist job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”
Midnight in Paris isn’t Allen’s fist romantic portrayal of a city. The opening scene of his 1973 film Manhattan stands as one of the most iconic portraits of New York City in film. Opening with black and white images of bumpy subway cars over bustling streets. A man with a jackhammer is busy while three hard hat construction workers whistle at a passerby. Ending with the brash American jazz of Gershwin, it builds to a crescendo of fireworks over central park.
Midnight in Paris seems to open in contrast to the iconic intro sequence of Manhattan. Allen gives us four uninterrupted minutes of modern Paris. If one doesn’t pay attention, one may miss what’s going on here. Allen is holding up a magnifying glass to the streets of Paris. He’s digging it. He wants us to see it as well, not just Paris, but that he is digging Paris. Allen is encouraging us to soak in the present. He gushes in the Parisian lights, just like his character Gil. Allen has written a story that presents appreciation as a virtue because worship of beauty can give us meaning and give life a sense of satisfaction.
During a late night walk along the Seine River with Adriana, Gil gives one of his longest lines of the movie, one that comes to my mind often.
“You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists, these lights, I mean come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing. For all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.”